For their fourteenth film, the Coen brothers have finally made what many are calling - champions and detractors both - their Jewish film. Set in 1967 suburban Minnesota, when and where the brothers actually grew up, A Serious Man is the story of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish professor who's life is beginning to seriously unravel - his wife wants a divorce so she can marry another man, his slacker brother is living on the couch, his disrespectful kids are stealing from him, his shot at tenure is being mysteriously blocked, he is being black-mailed by one of his students and he may very well be dying. Going through a serious of unhelpful rabbis like a thankless buffet, Larry tries vainly to deconstruct his life and therefore find out why "Hasshem" is causing him to suffer they way he is. Not to give away the ending but, he never does.
Being the story of Job - or perhaps a very loosely based translation of Kafka's The Trial (though Kafka may have been writing a very loosely based translation of the story of Job in the first place) - the brothers' film is full of allusions to the bible and Judaic legend and lore. Set up much like the ancient form of poetry known as Chiasmus (used in much of the Old Testament) where every action is countered with a similar or re-action, A Serious Man, with its opening scene (save for the bizarre almost non-sequitur prologue) being mirrored by the ending and the second scene mirrored by the penultimate and so on and so on, is probably the most symmetrical film the brothers have yet done. Of course this unique style of making a film (though the Coen's have played with such a thing in many of their previous works it stands out as much more deliberate here) along with the brothers' quick-edits and sudden changes of perspective may seem off-putting, or even unsettling, to a lot of viewers - even those relatively in tune with past Coen films such as Fargo or The Big Lebowski or even the itself-unsettling No Country For Old Men - but all this is perhaps meant to keep those watching as bewildered as the film's protag seems to be throughout.
Starring (mostly) unknown stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg in the role of Larry/Job, A Serious Man manages to convey the Kafkaesque befuddlements of its main schlepp not only through editing and writing, but also through a strangely pervasive performance from its lead actor. Simultaneously calm and frantic, Stuhlbarg's Larry Gopnik is a pitch perfect Job (or is that a pitch perfect Joseph K.?) in a role that demands its actor to dissolve into character the way a more well-known thespian could or would. It is Stuhlbarg's performance that carries the film at its very core. He is kept off balance throughout and he plays it in perfect synchronization - no matter how many humiliations pile atop him. Just like with Job where God refused to tell him why he was doing such things to him (God in the form of a tornado no less - leading to another filmic allusion to the scriptures), Larry is left in the lurch by the Rabbis who have no answer for him. When the film ends (a sore spot of criticism among the masses who have confusedly walked out of their respective theaters) and we see the approaching doom (or is it doom?), though one of the best endings in any film this year, we are left with a strangely fulfilling emptiness. Sublime even, in its abruptness.
I must admit that my immediate reaction to A Serious Man was that of bewilderment (in empathy with poor Larry perhaps), but the more I contemplate the film's poignant and quite ominous allegory and perfectly written and directed cinematic symmetry and its quick bursting edits that keep its viewers as off-kilter as its protagonist, the more I believe this to be a work of subtle genius, on par with, or even well above the best of the brothers' oeuvre. Along with Fargo (the Coen's most visually stunning film) and No Country For Old Men (their most brutally mystical) A Serious Man (their most honestly human work) is easily the brothers' at their bewildering best. [11/12/09]